Commentary: We Have a Monument – But What Else?

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by Emil Guillermo

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial recently, Georgetown Professor Christopher Metzler talked with some fifth- to eighth-grade students.

“Their knowledge of Dr. King was superficial at best,” he told me. “They said he stopped discrimination from happening. That’s the extent of it, and I find that deeply troubling.”

At least, they didn’t confuse Dr. King with being a medical doctor.

As the memorial gets its official unveiling on Sunday, the 30-foot monument seems to dwarf some bitter realities. Many people, including the young, have less of an understanding of what King stood for than we care to admit.  Far worse is that, overall, America’s record, in terms of society’s achieving Dr. King’s dream, puts us nowhere near anyone’s notion of a “Promised Land.” 

More than 40 years after his death, we still get the dream part. We just haven’t been able to translate it into a full reality.

“We’re in limbo,” said Metzler, one of the more outspoken voices on the matter, whom some may see as too harsh or critical of where we stand in the wake of the dream.

But Metzler is unapologetic in listing where we have failed, leaving much to be done.

Starting with education, Metzler said the emphasis in the past on desegregating schools was misguided. “We missed the message there,” he said. “So many went through the process, but students were not equally educated.”  

Metzler says that in the Brown v. Board of Education era a greater emphasis should have been placed on actual “educational attainment.” Now as communities and schools are re-segregating along color lines, he sees real educational deficiencies, especially when it comes to training young Black children. The low math and science test scores speak for themselves, he said.

He’s more regretful of the low scores in key areas like analytical and thinking skills and in writing ability. The failure in classrooms goes a long way toward the lack of jobs and employment opportunities.

“The way to success is still through education,” said Metzler. “If we look at King’s message and civil rights, education is by definition a part of that conversation.”

Metzler, however, doesn’t blame the educational system entirely. He blames the community—one that is increasingly populated with young grandparents and younger parents.

“We have a number of folks who aren’t educated themselves,” he said. “That’s why communities are having a much harder time educating the young.”

He said Dr. King would have urged a call to action and have elders in community work with schools and colleges to see that “we are an educated population.”

But Metzler sees a fundamental problem: The community’s failure to take care of each other. While Dr. King often discussed the concept of love of one’s community, which he described as “agape,” that message seems to be lost in the modern day.

“We have to blame ourselves not the government,” Metzler said. “The responsibility was on neighbors, aunts, uncles, community elders. Dr. King never advocated for government dependency but for fairness and equity.”

Throughout the U.S., Metzler doesn’t see an “Us” but an “I” community, based in part on influences like the Internet and TV, which foster a belief that it’s more about “me as an individual” rather than community progress.

Metzler calls it a “broken community” based on pop culture values, where too many young people hitch their hopes to stardom in sports or entertainment. Even though Blacks have become secretary of state, CEOs and even president,  he doesn’t hear them named as role models enough. It prompts Metzler to say he wouldn’t feel sad if the African American community never produced another rapper or football or basketball player or dancer.

“It’s limiting to have a focus on those professions,” Metzler said. “Dr. King would say a community cannot sustain itself in that way.”

There are signs of King’s “agape” in places like Detroit, where activist-philosopher Grace Lee Boggs is discovering that simply caring for each other as human beings is a revolution in itself.

An Asian American who was married to African American activist Jimmy Boggs, Grace Lee Boggs was part of major civil rights efforts in the 1960s, when she revered Malcolm X but saw King as sentimental and naïve.

But her views changed when she researched King’s study of Gandhi, and King’s 1967 work, “Where Do We Go from Here: Community or Chaos?”

That’s where Dr. King saw how the protest phase had given way to a new call for structural changes to eliminate poverty and unemployment and close the gap between rich and poor.

In her new book, The Next American Revolutions: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century, with Michigan Professor Scott Kurashige, Boggs writes how King talked about turning “the ghettos into a vast school” and making “every street corner into a forum.” But he said it would require a real change in community values, moving from a “thing”–oriented society to a “person”–oriented society.

Boggs has put King’s ideas into practice in Detroit helping to develop with education projects and a community watch group called Peace Zones for Life. Metzler admires the effort and wishes it would spread and run deep into every major city.

“Block by block? We haven’t done that, “Metzler said. “ We’re waiting around for someone to do something about it and that’s not going to happen.”

Forty years later, it’s still up to all of us to make Dr. King’s dream real.

— Emil Guillermo, a former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” has covered diversity issues for 30 years. His column, “Amok,” is at www.aaldef.org/blog and www.amok.com.

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